The Next Normal – The Changes Made to Business-As-Usual in a Global Pandemic

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 4 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

2020 was a year of challenge and change. The subsequent worry and stress that accompanied these events made many wish to put it all behind them. But some found silver linings and opportunities to persevere.

Near the end of 2020, Great Things talked to industry leaders, architects, partners and customers about what they learned over the past year, and what they are looking forward to in 2021.

More than anything, interviewees indicated that despite such a physically, mentally and emotionally challenging year, people rose to the occasion. Diverse teams came together to support each other both personally and professionally, utilized new technologies and platforms to make work easier and safer, and learned that communicating with colleagues across the country is just as easy as communicating with those next door.

A worker oversees the concrete pour on a jobsite
Self-perform work in West Sacramento. California was one of the few states with strict stay-at-home mandates, but construction work has continued. Courtesy of Chip Allen Photography

Finding Flexibility

Jay Bowman is a principal at FMI, an advisor and investment firm to the construction and engineering industry, and serves as managing director of research and analytics. Bowman noted that, like most businesses, FMI learned how to adapt to new working conditions, but as a happy side effect, it taught him how to engage with clients in a new way.

“At the end of the day, this is such a relationship-driven business and you have to take that time to check in with clients when there’s no projects. They want to know what’s going on just as you do. And I think this has been a real eye opener for me in how we can strengthen client relationships.”

He is optimistic that the challenges of 2020 have strengthened resolve, not just at FMI, but across companies and industries.

“Everyone was thrown this curveball, and we all had to figure out a way to adjust, and I think most people learned how to do that really well,” said Bowman. “We found a way to keep doing our work—we had to do it a bit differently—but we found a way. So the next time something like this comes along, whether that be another pandemic or something else, maybe we’ll feel like we have more control, we can do better, and we’ll make it through that one just as well as we made it through the last one.”

Respect and Positivity

Andy Dahl was a furloughed DPR project manager last spring, in part because the job site he was working on at an active hospital was shut down to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Dahl spoke about the respect and camaraderie he found on the site when the project resumed later in the summer, at a time marked by a surging movement of activism calling for social change.

“As long as there's a mutual respect and there's an environment of honesty, you can have these tough conversations regarding racism, sexism, politics, religion, whatever you want to talk about. Work together as a team, have the same goals, be respectful of one another.”

Dahl, who is back on the job in Charlotte, actively chooses to see the silver lining in what, for him, has been a difficult and emotional year.

“No one can control how you think about things and how you want to see it,” he said. “It's a personal choice and a personal responsibility, I am going to choose to see the good in this even if I can't see it right now. There's good in this and I'll find it.”

A worker stands in front of a large crane used on a project site in San Diego
Heavy equipment required careful planning from project teams so that work could be completed while workers maintained safe social distances from each other. Courtesy of Carlos Orzua

Developing Relationships

Matt McDonald, a principal at architecture firm Corgan, said his biggest worry for 2021 is the economy and the environment around lending, given its importance in the architecture and construction industry.

“There’s so much of what we do that deals with finances and borrowing money, and if there are new protocols that make lending and borrowing money challenging, that’s going to really have an impact on a lot of things we do”

He noted how important good communication is going to be in 2021, since most companies have now adjusted to working remotely for nearly a year.

“You take advantage of the unplanned interactions that happen in the office, and when you don’t have those, you have to make a special effort to stay in touch with folks."

However, this has turned into a silver lining for McDonald.

“I think we have developed relationships differently. Internally as a firm, we’re doing a lot more cross-collaboration with different market sectors, and different offices. Everyone is remote so it’s just as easy to talk to someone from your office as it is to talk to people in other cities. The collaboration across the firm has dramatically increased.”

Prioritizing Safety

James Singletary is a superintendent with DPR, based in Tennessee. He noted that despite awkward changes and new on-site procedures, building safety protocols into the daily workflow and morning safety meetings eased the transition, making it a seamless part of the workday.

“Some people adapted to it easier than other people, but it was a good change. Obviously, we were facing a worldwide epidemic, so they realized it wasn’t just DPR holding anyone to a standard, but it was a serious health issue that they really needed to take measures with, and everyone was on board.”

A New Leadership Style

Denton Wilson of Atrium Health has worked with DPR teams on many of his organization’s new and existing properties. He is most concerned about the unknown going into 2021, especially trying to define what the “next normal” looks like.

“We're going to have to answer, ‘what is the new norm?’ We know that the old norm doesn’t fit today’s needs, and it’s never coming back. We know where we are today is not the norm, but we don't know what the norm is going to be, and more importantly, we don't know when we're going to get it.”

And while Wilson acknowledges the stress from 2020 will not instantly vanish in the new year, he expressed the need for a new leadership style in 2021 that focuses on the holistic needs of diverse teams.

“More so this year than ever, needing to know about people skills is huge for leaders, because you have to be able to read people through a screen versus being in front of them and reading body language, so every word matters. The best thing you can do as a leader is to understand what your team needs, give them what they need, stop trying to micromanage them, celebrate their praises, and let them do their job. If you can’t inspire someone, you’re not being the best leader you can be.”

Wilson leaves this piece of advice for 2021: “Write down the positives and negatives of the past year. I think you’ll find there are more positives than negatives. The only way we’ll transition to the next year is to sit down and figure out what we want out of it. Otherwise, you’ll just continue thinking about the negatives and you won’t move on, and that’s not where we need to be.”

A worker directs a forklift operator lifting a crate onto an upper floor of a construction site.
Planning and preparation to keep work moving while also ensuring safety led to better planning strategies. Courtesy of Chip Allen Photography

While there are many things that remain unpredictable, one thing is clear: 2020, amid its challenges, fostered ingenuity and new ways of working and connecting in what has traditionally been a face-to-face, relationship-driven industry.

George Pfeffer, who serves on DPR’s Management Committee said, “the industry responded in a way that proves we can adapt to even the most daunting of crises, persevere in the face of the most destructive of natural forces, and stand together in time of division. This past year forced us to re-examine what we find important, the health and safety of our people, and how we bring our personal ethics into our working lives and move forward.”